Always knowingly wilful, Neil Young has never been an easy musician to pin down. Having cut his teeth with Buffalo Springfield, his solo career started off with a solid enough debut of relatively standard singer-songwriter fare, a style he almost immeadiately ditched in favour of hooking up with half of garage band The Rockets, renaming them Crazy Horse and recording the album of epic guitar workouts that was Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, then confounded any type of expectation by joining forces with Crosby, Stills and Nash and recording the enormously successful Deja Vu. Having released three very different albums released in a little more than twelve months, Neil Young fans effectively stopped trying to predict the course of his career and just settled in for the ride.
Neil Young’s next move would be to return to his solo career, blending the hippy-flecked folk rock of Deja Vu with the guitar rock of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, resulting in After the Gold Rush, an album which would prove to be one of the key releases of a career which has spanned half a century. Largely recorded in Young’s basement with the help of both CSNY colleagues and Crazy Horse, as well as the then unknown Nils Lofgren, After the Gold Rush boasts a clutch of pretty laid-back tunes like opener “Tell Me Why”, “Birds” and the resigned “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which were sharp contrasts to the raging guitar rock of “Southern Man” and the rollicking “When You Dance I Can Really Love”, with the last tracks on both sides being short audio sketches which manage to lodge themselves into your memory and continue to bubble to the surface long after the album has concluded.
Many fans point to After the Gold Rush as the point that Neil Young reached his full maturity as a writer. Nowhere is this more obvious than the album’s title track, with it’s beautifully stark piano, the emotional fragility of his voice, tales of UFOs and a french horn solo. It’s one of the best songs of a career not short of amazing tunes. “I Believe in You” and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” are also early career lyrical highpoints for Young, contributing to an album which contains one of the highest concentrations of great songs of his career.
As great as the albums that preceeded it had been, After the Gold Rush was the album which established Neil Young as an artist of major significance and would solidify his image as an acoustic troubador who was equally able to morph into a snarling guitar rock beast without missing a beat. It remains one of the finest examples of the album length singer songwriter statement and the ideal entry into Young’s bewilderingly labyrinth career. It certainly deserves to eclipse the mega-selling Harvest.